New Jersey Jewish Standard

 

An Encounter With a City of Heroes


Michael Wildes • Local | World
Published: 05 March 2009

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After Mayor Michael Wildes personally joined in a mission to Sderot: he received a vist from Sderot Mayor David Bouskila: The two mayors discussed crucial issues facing the residents of Sderot.

Perhaps I am starting to show signs of my age (or at the very least, my propensity for jet-lag), but my latest trip to Israel has left me reeling, reflective, and impressed. Recently, I had the great privilege of traveling with fellow Englewood residents to participate in a mission to Sderot, Israel. Sderot is a city too often in the recent news, with over 20,000 residents, located less than a mile from the Gaza Strip.

Sderot’s proximity to Gaza makes the city an ideal target for Hamas and its cohorts. Since 2001, over 10,000 Qassam and mortar rockets have been launched from Gaza into the city. This past year alone, over 3,200 Palestinian rockets found their way into Sderot. Eager to protect its people, Israeli officials have reached “ceasefires” with Hamas. One such ceasefire lasted from November 2006 until May 2007, during which Israel upheld its end of the bargain, yet over 300 rockets still fell. A more recent ceasefire lasted from June 2008 until December 2008 and saw over 530 rockets launched across Israel’s border.

But I knew the statistics before I visited the city and they are not what resound within me even as I write this. My trip, and so this account of it is about people. I met heroes. I heard stories of triumph over evil and victory at a price. However, none of those I met knew they were heroes, nor would you detect it if you met them at a restaurant or passed them on the street. Many likely never attempted anything extraordinary in their lifetime. These everyday people just go about their daily routines, altered for the moment no more than necessary. Teenage boys still learn in Yeshiva. Parents still travel by bus or car to work and come home. Little children still run in the playground with perhaps only their innocence lost.

Indeed: Sderot’s residents lack the innocence they should have, old or young, for they have seen too much for one lifetime; citizens witnessing the atrocities no soldier should have to face. The Yeshiva’s roof is five feet of concrete; the playground is covered in the same; the bus stops are bomb shelters. Dozens have died in Sderot. No one is untouched by the Qassam rockets. And yet, permanently stained only with the pain of loss and post traumatic stress disorder (from which 30% of the residents suffer), people continue to go about their lives, not unaffected, but unchanged. They are still the same souls with their value for life still always evident.

I had the honor of traveling with Rabbi Seth Mandel, whose son Koby was killed. When I asked whether it is hard to live so close to the site where his son died, he responded “It’s not hard where he died but where he lived.” I have since learned that Koby, thirteen years old at the time, was stoned to death in a cave by Hamas.

Later in the mission I met a man whose young daughter, killed by a Qassam rocket. The young girl jumped on top of her brother to shield him from an incoming projectile. His life was spared; her life was not. I observed a man as he jogged, listening to his Walkman, but missing an arm – injured but not defeated. The list goes on and on; people who persevere through these troubled times not by curling up or shying away but by pushing forward.

Through all the trouble they’ve seen, the citizens of Sderot remain a resoundingly strong group. Rather than cave and run, they stay in the beautiful town which they built and press to make the lives they lead meaningful, always looking to the future and supporting the Yeshiva and Sapir College as well as the elementary and high schools.

With their minds always to their future, they were eager to showcase the progress their city was making to advance their safety and defense. Obviously some change will be necessary to better protect and serve the local residents. Sderot’s residents have instituted several precautions. After Sderot officials pressed the Israeli government, an advanced radar system capable of detecting rockets as they are being launched was implemented. When a rocket is detected, loudspeakers notify Sderot citizens and advise them to seek shelter.

Citizens typically have only about fifteen seconds to seek shelter before impact. Therefore, every roof must be reinforced so that refuge can be found at every possible turn. Bus stops, playgrounds, all the public buildings must have shelter. Sderot has vibrating beepers for the hard of hearing and some of the elderly whose mobility is too slow for the fifteen second warning, actually sleep in shelters. The cost of all this is high and the community continues to struggle to afford protection for its residents. Again however, my trip was not highlighted by fundraising.

While Hamas launches rockets into Sderot at all hours of the day, most Hamas rockets find their way into Sderot around eight in the morning – when children commute to their schools. The fear this instills in the children is unconscionable. Many sleep in their parents’ beds at night, reverting to tendencies they had when they were younger and more dependant.

In an attempt to see the children progressing rather than regressing, I visited the Amit Torani Madai Elementary School, which offers classes from first through sixth grade. While touring the facilities and speaking with teachers, I was told that a rocket had hit near the school on Friday, less than a week earlier. When I asked where, the teacher simply pointed out the window to a house across the street. I was later informed that the rocket cost a young boy his legs.

Aware that Sderot’s children are preferred targets, the school is equipped with several shelters in the event Hamas’ rockets find their mark. Yet, these shelters evade notice by the untrained eye. The teachers have painted the shelters with elaborate scenery and animals, which causes them to blend in as typical elementary school décor. These painted shelters are symbolic of Sderot – necessary, yet beautiful. And that is simply how it is with everything in these children’s lives. Hamas’ heinous efforts and hostilities are confronted by Sderot’s resilience and vibrancy. They accept the bad, hide its effects deep within and put forth a smiling exterior.

The people of Sderot remain incredibly hopeful and motivated despite the travesties they have faced. Cognizant that new infrastructure will provide Hamas with more targets, the people of Sderot do not avoid building; they build stronger. Mindful that Hamas seeks to disrupt their culture, they view Qassam rockets as an inconvenience unworthy of Sderot’s surrender. When faced with adversity, Sderot meets challenges guided by reason rather than fear. Despite the tragedies forced upon them, Sderot’s citizens speak of compassion rather than vengeance. Targeted by Hamas because of their faith and citizenship, Sderot’s people are sustained by their religion and their country.

Most touching were the candid and authentic conversations that residents of Sderot shared with me, detailing how their hardships shaped their lives. For their generosity and willingness to communicate their feelings, I am forever grateful. I found their courage admirable and gained immeasurably from the experience of visiting this city of heroes. I carry their stories with me now and forever. Those I met inspired me and serve as a well of strength into which I may tap at any time.

Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor, is an immigration lawyer, a partner in the law firm of Wildes & Weinberg, and the Mayor of Englewood, N.J.

 

 

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